on the corner “Serve a suffering humanity”

By Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief

I’m sure you’re aware of our Army’s mission, and the interpretation of it made by John Gowans. Just to remind you, he said: “The Salvation Army exists to save souls, grow saints, serve suffering humanity.” Simple. Straightforward. Specific. This is who we are and what we do. I buy it.

I wonder, though, are these expressed in a particular order? Do they all have equal emphasis? Are we left to choose among them? Is one more important than another?

I see them as having equal emphasis, but I wonder how “the field” sees them—how they are actually implemented in practice. I believe that the emphasis varies widely with most corps emphasizing the first one—saving souls; not too sure about the second one—growing saints; and delegating the third one to a qualified employee—serving suffering humanity.

I see the “growing saints” part of our mission as discipling. Facilitating growth is critical in the life of the new believer. If it is their intention to attend regularly, give them a responsibility.

It was in October 1890 that Booth published his major social work treatise, “In Darkest England and the Way Out.” This book underlined his Army’s commitment to the poor and caused us to have the third statement of our mission: serving a suffering humanity.

What does that mean? It means we meet the needs of those in distress through multiple approaches depending on the needs of the population served.

How might we identify this “suffering humanity”? We need to know a lot more about what it means “to suffer.”

The characteristics of today’s suffering humanity are much like those of the people William and Catherine Booth found in East London 150 years ago—what he called the submerged 10th—the poor. This population, today, has now grown in this country to the forgotten 15th. More than 15 percent of today’s America live below the poverty line. They are the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, the frightened, the ill, the elderly, the addicted, the marginalized, the disenfranchised—the 46.2 million people today living below the “poverty line.” That line, for a family of four, represents an income around $22,000 per year for everything.

Originally, when this “line” was created it represented 50 percent of the median income of a family. Today, that figure represents only 30 percent of median income. This amount is far below the actual amount for a family to survive. These are the people that some in Congress, in order to balance the budget, believe need less money.

Actually, I doubt that we have any idea how to measure poverty. I don’t think it’s quantifiable. How does one put a number on survival? Can you figure the cost of being poor?

The church, including the Army, cannot confront poverty by itself. We must share that responsibility with others; including the federal government. It needs to be involved, but so do we. As discussion continues on budget-balancing issues, we must join other churches and organizations equally committed to the poor in advocating for those living in poverty. That’s a place to start.

I firmly believe that, in many cases, the Army has become much too insular. The poor are our people, yet the tactic we use to relate to them seems to be built on a waiting strategy. When they come to us for some kind of help we will aid them. We need to design a tactic of going out and exploring how we can become more inclusive and feed the poor a lot more than simply food.

For some reason our current image of a “poor person” is rarely seen as elderly. This must change.

James Firman, president of the National Council on Aging, stated that official measures of poverty levels are inadequate in that they underestimate the 20 to 40 percent of total income that those 65 and older currently have to pay out of pocket for health care.

Alicia Munnell, director of Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, stated that credit card debt is rising faster among the elderly than any other groups because of demands to pay high medical fees.

Our image and our reality must be perceived as the primary advocate for the poor—the poor in spirit, the poor economically and anyone else the culture denigrates unfairly.

Who speaks for the poor? Whose voice will be most trusted? It is the voice that speaks with accurate  authority and has assembled the facts, understands how they are misused or kept secret, a voice without  any gain other than serving a suffering humanity—one of our missions.

In this nation, the Army needs some kind of data-gathering agency whose responsibility will be to keep us apprised of issues we face in the present and the near future. We need a think tank.

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